When I was a teenager, my mum would often yell at me, ‘Don’t run upstairs like a bloody elephant!’ She said that I would ‘come through the ceiling’. I knew this to be nonsense and so ignored her.
For twenty-something years I was right to do so, but then two Mondays ago I went and put my foot through the stairs.
It sounds dramatic. Really, it was all over in a brief crack, shriek, and you’ve got to be kidding me. My foot was fine, but I quickly realised the stair would need fixing that day. It could not be ignored.
So I called my dad. He made some reference to ‘running’ and ‘elephants’ and agreed to drive over and assess the damage. It took a few hours, but he managed to sort out the stair and it’s been perfectly servicable since.
As for me, I lost a day’s work. Or more accurately, I spent the rest of the week working late to try and catch up on the work that I’d planned to do on the Monday.
Last Monday – one Monday ago – I woke with a head cold. I’d been feeling rough the night before and my wife had been ill recently too, so I wasn’t surprised. I took the kids to school and made my way to work in the shed.
By lunchtime, I felt really not very well at all, but I was due to work in-house with clients on Tuesday, part of Wednesday, Thursday and Friday, which meant Monday had to be my day for getting everything else done.
I carried on working and didn’t make as much progress as I would have liked, so finished off a few things in the evening. By that time, I was officially unwell and thinking to myself, ‘If I was not self-employed, I would totally take a sick day tomorrow and stay in bed.’
Tuesday came and I felt worse, but also slightly different. It seemed this would be an illness where each day brought some new reason to feel aggrieved at the injustice of being human and vulnerable.
I did not work in-house with a client on Tuesday. Instead, I worked remotely from the shed. When I had the shiver-sweats, I wore my thick coat. I stripped to a t-shirt when my insides felt hotter than the sun itself.
I did the same thing on Wednesday. And then on Thursday, I finally told the client I was supposed to be joining that not only would I not be making it into their office, I would not be available to work at all. I spent some time on the sofa feeling sorry for myself. And in the evening, I felt a little better so I did some work to try and catch up.
Friday came and I decided I felt sufficiently well enough to take my germs with me to my client’s office (different client to Thursday). People looked at me in a way that seemed to say, ‘Jesus Christ, are you okay?’
So I went to the toilet and looked in the mirror. My nose was red and flaky. My lips were blueish and, by now, also rather flaky. In the cold harsh light of an office block’s toilet mirror, I did not look well.
But I carried on and no one told me to leave. I completed the working day and by the end of it, I started to enter a period that I might have called ‘on the mend’. I was beginning to feel like a person again.
Why tell you all this? Because it got me thinking about a) the pressure you feel as someone who is self-employed to keep working no matter what, even if it’s clear that you need to take a break, and b) how that pressure – certainly in my case – comes from how you set yourself up for work.
More than anything, what I have learnt from the last two weeks is that stuff happens and it does so whenever it wants. There is no stopping stuff happening and so all you can do is accept it and build it into your schedule.
Like many freelancers, I have found it hard to say no to things. In fact, saying yes to things is something that I recommend and has stood me in good stead over the last two years. But there is a limit.
The reason putting my foot through the stairs and picking up a terribly challenging common cold proved such a problem for me was because I’m working with a total lack of slack. I’m at capacity. Up to my eyes in it. With nowhere to go when something unexpected crops up.
Most of the time, it’s okay because I’m able to multitask, switch contexts and stay on top of things. But not the last two weeks. Instead, I’ve had to work until the early hours or sit in a shed with my poorly hat on wondering how on earth it all came to this. Or that.
I resolve to make a change, though I don’t know what that looks like.
I do know that while it’s important to fill your days with interesting work and good people, it’s not healthy to go without slack. It’s not sensible to deal with unexpected events by throwing yourself into the gaps or ploughing into the madness.
Having slack means making sure that when something comes up, you have time and space to stop and deal with it. It means leaving room in your weeks for any other business. Stuff you don’t yet know. That could be a foot through the stairs, or it could be an invitation to an exciting event or meeting.
Either way, your slack is something to treasure. And now another week is here, I think I’d really rather like my own slack back please.